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Let's Innovate The Sh*t Out Of The Liberals' Innovation Budget

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(Photo: Bill Ingalls/NASA)

In the hit movie The Martian Matt Damon's character, astronaut Mark Watney, is left in the dust of Mars alone to survive. He realizes that to live, "I'm going to have to science the sh*t out of this." There are some lessons in there for the Trudeau government as they conduct their consultations on Canada's wait-and-see innovation budget.

LESSON 1: New ways to spread manure are not enough.

In the movie, Mark Watney figures out how to grow potatoes on Mars through an innovative use of his team's manure. There is a tendency in government to slap the word "innovation" on an array of repackaged program announcements. We can't do the same things over again and expect different results.

LESSON 2: Success involves risk and failure.

Figuring out the fertilizer issue was not enough. Watney needed water to bring his seedlings to life. Hey! That is like the capital our startups need. Watney uses chemistry to make water from rocket fuel. What was once critical to his escape becomes the fodder for his survival. The process is risky and he even blows himself up while trying. But he succeeds. Reallocating money from election promises or historically sacred programs needs to be part of the "innovation agenda." As Dan Breznitz, the Munk Chair of Innovation Studies at the University of Toronto, has said:

"An innovation policy without vision is the usual Canadian non-innovation policy. Trying to turn our grand new vision into reality without constant experimentation will be a waste of public money."

LESSON 3: 'Mission critical' means all-encompassing.

The entire movie hangs off of Damon's line. It's even a favourite of real-life celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. We have no doubt about Watney's commitment. His very survival depends on applying absolute best know-how to everything he does. We need this same urgency in Canada. This is not only the file of Navdeep Bains, the minister of innovation, science and economic development. We need government-wide changes like a plan for procurement policy to embrace buying from Canadian startups.

Dan Breznitz's book, Innovation and the State: Political Choice and Strategies for Growth in Israel, Taiwan, and Ireland and the recent Nesta report based on his framework, co-authored by Canadian Alex Glennie, should have the attention of minister Bains and his adviser Nathon Gunn.

In the forward to the recent report, Breznitz says that "there is no one-size-fits all model" for state innovation agencies. As I review my recommendations for change, I agree that each initiative needs to consider our unique context and transform solutions inspired by global successes to make them our own.

The danger is that minister Bains completes his innovation walkabout and the whole federal government does not come back with the kind of realization that Mark Watney had. For him, every day was a series of firsts. We are seeking business models, products and technologies that do not exist yet. We need a lean, agile startup-like approach to experimentation throughout Canada.

For example, in a recent spat with Visa over merchant credit card fees, Walmart Canada stopped accepting Visa cards from Canadians on millions of transactions. With merchant credit card fees at 0.3 per cent in parts of Europe and as high as 1.5 per cent in Canada, it can seem like Canadian consumers are getting a crappy deal. But before the Federal Government steps in with a regulatory response, consider ways to promote Canadian interests in what amounts to a battle for profit margins between multi-national market agents.

Why not a policy to promote the adoption of alternative payment methods like nanoPay's MintChip? That would put pressure on credit card companies to reduce fees. Is there a way that Shopify, our national champion of e-commerce, can take advantage of Walmart's use of Canadian consumers as a bargaining chip?

Breznitz's team says their aim is to help policymakers think more systematically and clearly about the choices they have. We can be grateful for a useful framework to calibrate initiatives as long as governments begin with the end in mind.

Let's innovate the sh*t out of this.

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